K.D. Shives is pursuing a PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. She can be found blogging about current topics in microbiology at kdshives.com  and on twitter at @kdshives .
Some of you reading this article are about to start your first round of graduate school interviews this spring. Many of these interviews will take place during what is known as recruitment weekend. However, this is a much different process than your standard job interview and you should be aware that there are some key differences between the two. While much of this advice comes from my own experience in the sciences and will vary according to your program, there are some basic themes to be aware of.
1: It will be longer than your standard job interview. Expect to spend two full days at a university recruitment event. A common format is to split your time between interviews with faculty, tours of campus, meeting with current graduate students, and tours of the area surrounding the institution. Be prepared for all of the different events that they list on your itinerary as some programs have group activities like sightseeing or snowshoeing. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint, so pace yourself and be sure to rest during your available downtime.
2: Know the program. You should know why you want to be in this particular program compared to those at other universities. However, the depth of this preparation will probably be foreign to many undergraduates. You should take the time to go over the school webpage thoroughly so that you know all of the basics such as: is there a stipend, how much is tuition, are graduate students required to teach, what kind of research is done in the program, and if students go on to productive careers.
This is also good information to know because it will prevent you from asking recruiters easily answered questions from the website that would show them you didn’t prepare and may not be a serious candidate.
3: Know the people. Take the time to research the faculty members that you will be interviewing with. You don’t need to know their life history by any means, but when you get your interview itinerary take the time to note who you will be meeting with and then go find some of their most recent papers. This will give you an idea of what kind of research is currently being done and give you a talking point for the interview as well.
4: Dress the part. At this point it is assumed that we are professional young adults capable of dressing in a manner appropriate for interviews at an academic institution. Yet many recruits struggle with finding appropriate interview attire after the much more casual undergraduate environment.
For most academic programs a nice suit (not a tux!) will serve you well. Try to keep the cut modern (avoid the 20 year old suit in the closet) and in neutral colors such as black, grey, or blue. For ladies wearing a suit skirt, be sure that the length is long enough to sit down in across from your interviewer comfortably. See my post “Dressing for Battle: Academic armaments ” for a rundown of basic upgrades you can make to your work wardrobe that apply to the interview process as well.
5: Know why you want to pursue a graduate degree. This may seem obvious, but know why you are going to graduate school and be able to articulate that reason clearly. The recruiters will want to know why you are there and will be looking to see what motivates you for such an undertaking. Be prepared to answer this question many times in an honest and genuine manner that will convey your enthusiasm for pursuing a graduate career without coming across as cliché. Try to avoid the “since I was a child I always wanted…” approach and focus on concrete details from your more recent past and educational experience.
6: It’s your chance to interview the program. It’s not just about trying to answer all the questions, eventually the torch will be passed to you. If your turn comes to speak and you don’t ask pertinent questions it will appear to the interviewer that you are not engaged or uninterested in the program. Avoid this potential awkward moment at all costs. One tip is to remember that the decision to go to graduate school is yours alone and therefore you should find a program that is the best possible for you. What matters to you? What do you need from a program to successfully finish a Masters or PhD? Think about these topics and questions about the program will naturally follow. Good questions for an interviewer will show that you have done your background research and are trying to imagine yourself in that department.
If there is a stipend, is it a livable one for the region? What is the cost of living in the area? How long do students take to graduate? What kind of projects have your students done? Do students balance research, teaching, and coursework well in the program? What have your students gone on to do professionally?
Think about the things that matter to you beforehand and try to ask the same question to multiple people to really get a feel for the department.
7: Talk to the current students and ask questions. Make the effort to talk to other students and be personable so that you demonstrate that you would fit well with the department environment. I distinctly remember a recruit who showed very little interest in the current students or asking questions about the program to the point of appearing condescending. As a result, this person left without making any sort of positive lasting impression and lost out on potentially favorable feedback from the students. Don’t be this person! Take the time to talk to different students in the department to get an idea of how the students experience the graduate program at that school.
Also, current students are a huge wealth of information about the program and what it actually means to be a student at that particular institution. They have the department scuttlebutt that isn’t on the webpage and oftentimes this can be highly valuable knowledge. Talk to students in labs that you are interested in to see what the day to day environment is like, what common workloads are, and what kind of projects the students work on.
8. Sell yourself effectively. Remember, you’ve made it this far and wouldn’t have made it to interviews unless the admission committee is already interested in you on paper. It’s now your job to sell yourself in person. What experiences have you had that would make you a good candidate? What makes you special compared to the other applicants? Do you have unique experiences or skills that set you apart? Know what good qualities set you apart and try to let those shine during interviews.
9: It will be like 1984. Not the year, the book. You will be under observation at all times during recruitment unless you are actually alone. At every other moment the faculty, staff, and graduate students are all observing you and your behavior so be sure to act in a polite and respectful manner. Some programs will have a graduate student on the admissions committee to relay student impressions of the recruits to the faculty, so quality interactions with the students matter. Administrative staff can also give feedback to admissions committees, so take care to be polite to all members of the department.
10: The afterparty is still the interview. See #9. You do not want do want to be disqualified or given less consideration due to unprofessional behavior, so save the post-interview debauchery for home. I’m not saying don’t drink, just know your safe limit and stay within professional bounds as current students will be there and they are still forming opinions about you that can make their way back to the admissions committee.
These tips should help in preparing for and navigating your first interview weekend. This can be a trying process, but with the proper preparation and a good attitude you have a great shot. Remember, you’ve already made it this far! Best of luck!
Are there any other tips readers have for recruitment weekend? If so, please share in the comments.
Image from Flickr courtesy of gmilldrum